KU Cancer Center among the leaders in revolutionary cancer-fighting treatments.
Heloise Gray sits in an exam room at the University of Kansas Cancer Center with a look of profound relief and gratitude on her face.
Because of a revolutionary cancer-fighting treatment, she is winning her war against acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which she was diagnosed with in early November 2014. She is in remission.
“I wanted to be here to attend my first grandson’s high school graduation,” says Gray, 64, of Blue Springs, during an interview in mid-June. “He graduated last Sunday. I was able to attend that. He walked me into the house, and he held me and said, ‘Nana, I’m glad you were here to attend my graduation.’ And we both started crying.”
Gray’s story is made possible because of the outstanding results KU Cancer Center is getting with immunotherapy, a treatment that boosts the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, including leukemia and lymphoma.
And KU Cancer Center is at the forefront of immunotherapy clinical trials and treatments. It’s among the top 10 leukemia centers in the United States in size and quality.
“In no time in 26 years have I been more excited about the promise of cancer medicine than I am today,” says Dr. Joseph McGuirk, the center’s director of blood cancers and bone marrow transplants, who has been a cancer doctor since 1990. “As a realist, I am extraordinarily optimistic about the future based on a number of things that are unfolding in our understanding of cancers and how they behave. We’re in the middle of a revolution in Kansas City medicine right now. And that’s not hyperbole.”
Three new cancer-fighting approaches using immunotherapy are being used and studied at KU Cancer Center:
● Blincyto, which is what Gray is being treated with in addition to conventional chemotherapy;
● Checkpoint inhibitors, which is what was used so far to successfully treat former President Jimmy Carter’s melanoma that attached to his brain; and
● CAR T-cell therapy, which removes T cells, a type of white blood cell, from a patient’s body and genetically engineers them to recognize and attack the patient’s tumors after being put back into the patient.
Blincyto, McGuirk says, is a two-pronged antibody that turns the body’s own white blood cells, called T cells, into cancer fighters when attached to cancer cells.
“With the T-cell in close proximity to the cancer cell, it allows the T-cell to release killing machinery to kill the cancer cell to which it’s attached,” he explains.
He says 60 to 90 percent of patients achieve full remission with Blincyto, compared to 30 percent with standard medicine.
The drug is used for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients, he says, adding that “other drugs are being developed for a number of other cancers, including AML (acute myeloid leukemia), with what are called bind-specific antibodies.”
The hope, McGuirk says, is that clinical trials being conducted on Blincyto, of which Gray is a participant, will demonstrate that patients have a higher chance of being cured when it is combined with conventional chemotherapy.
“It will be a couple of years before we get the final results,” he says. “We have to follow up after a couple of years to say that they’re not likely to relapse.”
Checkpoint inhibitors, simply put, effectively block the action of proteins that act as checkpoints and allow cancer cells to hide from the immune system and survive. They seek to overcome one of cancer’s main defenses against an immune system attack.
“Many, many patients with terrible cancers are undergoing remarkable remissions with this,” McGuirk says. “Certain types of lung cancers are going into complete remissions with these drugs. It’s really awesome. Because the results have been so extraordinary, it’s been moved up to the frontline of care for many patients, including the patients with melanoma, renal cell carcinoma, kidney cancers, lung cancers. It’s a frontline therapy now, but we need to figure out how to optimize it, how to use it the right way. So in that context, it’s in clinical studies right now.”
CAR T-cell therapy (CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptors) is unique in that, unlike chemotherapy and radiation that kill both good and bad cells, it targets the disease by zeroing in on specific proteins found on the surfaces of malignant cells, McGuirk says. People come to KU Cancer Center from around the country and the world to undergo clinical trials for this promising therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients who have run out of options using conventional therapies.
“Our institution was the first in the world to enroll [in clinical trials] and is the first trial,” he says. “We lead the world today by far in the number of patients to date.”
Clinical trials are at the heart of the breakthroughs, he says, adding that KU Caner Center’s leukemia program has increased tenfold in the nine years since he was recruited to lead the bone marrow transplant program.
“Nine years ago, we were doing 35 to 40 transplants a year in the metro area,” he says. “And we’ve grown from 35 to 40 transplants a year to 350 bone marrow transplants a year.”
The fight against cancer looks promising, McGuirk says.
“We’re getting there,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do still. We still use a lot of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is still a mainstay in the treatment of most cancers, as is radiation therapy. But you can see that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting a lot brighter. You can see a really promising future coming down the line quickly.”
For Gray, who undergoes regular treatments that leave her with good days and bad, her future seems full of hope and promise. Gray, a married, retired Social Security disability claims representative, has a supportive circle of family and friends.
“I’m blessed that I’m still here,” she says. “I have no complaints.”